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More Canadian Poltergeists

More Canadian Poltergeists

Last Friday, I published an article on the Great Amherst Mystery– the story of Canada’s most famous poltergeist. As I mentioned in that article, poltergeist activity, according to spiritualists, is characterized by loud, inexplicable knocking sounds; the motion of household objects absent of some discernible force; and the presence of a person- usually a teenage girl- around which these activities seem to revolve.

The mystery of Amherst, Nova Scotia, is but one among dozens of cases of alleged Canadian poltergeist activity. From Vancouver to St. John’s, and from the 17th Century up to the present day, households all over the country have played host to this mysterious activity, attributable to boisterous ghosts, teenage pranksters, or accidental adolescent telekinesis, depending on who you talk to. Such stories are sufficiently numerous to fill a book, and maybe one day, if this author feels up to the task, such a tome will grace the shelves of our bookshop. For now, however, here are a few more Nova Scotian poltergeist stories, each of which curiously take places in the month of December. Enjoy!

The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills

In 2010, American horror novelist Stephen King wrote Full Dark, No Stars, an anthology comprised of four novellas. One of these novellas, entitled “1922”, tells the fictional story of a Nebraska farmer who experienced paranormal activity on his family farm in the year 1922.

It has been said that truth is stranger fiction. This idiom rings true when one compares the eerie plot of 1922 with an even more chilling real-life case of supposed paranormal activity which took place that same year on a remote Nova Scotian homestead far from the arid plains of Nebraska. This farm was owned by an elderly couple named Alexander and Janet MacDonald, who lived there with their 15-year-old adopted daughter, Mary Ellen. The MacDonald homestead was located near Caledonia Mills, a rural community comprised almost entirely of Catholic Highland Scots, situated in northeastern Nova Scotia about 20 minutes southeast of the town of Antigonish. In 1922, this otherwise unremarkable farmhouse was the site of alleged poltergeist activity which made headlines all over Canada and the United States.

Poltergeist

The Poltergeist of Caledonia Mills.

The activity began in December 1921. One cold winter morning, old Alex MacDonald, while tending to his animals, found that someone had set his horses and cattle loose from their stalls sometime in the night. Mere minutes after he guided the last horse back into its stall, all the animals inexplicably escaped again.

Several days later, MacDonald awoke to learn that the horses and cattle had switched places. On another occasion, he discovered that some nocturnal agent had bobbed his horses’ tails, or twisted the horsehairs into elaborate braids.

Alexander MacDonald quickly grew weary of the pranks. Eventually, he asked some of his neighbours to assist him in catching the culprit red-handed. Unfortunately, these well-meaning Nova Scotian farmers fared little better than McDonald, although they did witness a number of mysterious manifestations. One farmer saw a strange blue light emanating from MacDonald’s barn one night. Another noticed that household objects seemed to vanish before reappearing in other sections of the estate. Two neighbours even claimed to have observed a hand waving a white cloth from the second-story window of MacDonald’s farmhouse at a time when no residents were in that part of the house. It quickly became clear to Alex and his neighbours that something very strange was going on at the MacDonald farm.

The Poltergeist of Caledonia Mills

Soon, Macdonald’s mysterious tormentor began lighting fires on his property. This arsonous activity intensified until, on January 6, 1922, Alex MacDonald and six of his neighbours spent the day combatting both a ferocious blizzard and a whopping thirty eight fires which erupted mysteriously in and around his farmhouse. Fearing for his family’s safety, Alex asked his neighbour, Leo McGillivray, if he and his wife and adopted daughter might stay at his farmhouse until the mystery was solved- a request which McGillivray happily granted. In the ensuing weeks, the elderly Alex slogged over three miles of snow-covered dirt road twice a day to feed his livestock.

Detective Carroll, top; and Harold Whidden, bottom

News travels fast in small towns, and soon the story of the poltergeist of Caledonia Mills reached the ears of regional newspapermen. On January 16, 1922, a reporter named Harold B. Whidden, who worked for the Halifax Herald, was dispatched to the MacDonald farm and charged with writing a few pieces on the activity. Whidden dutifully interviewed Alexander, Janet, and Mary Ellen, as well as several neighbours, and included their startling testimonies in a number of articles. He also visited the abandoned MacDonald farmhouse and saw that it indeed bore evidence of many fires.

Shortly after the conclusion of his first visit, Harold Whidden made a second trip out to the MacDonald farm, this time intending to stay in the farmhouse for three nights. He was accompanied on this outing by Alexander MacDonald and Detective P.O. “Peachy” Carroll- a county policeman from the nearby town of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

The men’s first day of investigation was uneventful. On their second night, however, both Whidden and Carroll heard strange noises unlike anything they had ever heard before which seemed to emanate from the upper floor of the farmhouse. As Whidden listened to the sounds, his eyes glued to the ceiling, he felt a hard slap on his arm, noticeable through several layers of thick clothing.

“Did you just slap me?” he asked Carroll.

The policeman shook his head and claimed that he, too, had similarly felt a pressure on his arm.

Immediately, the two men had the distinct impression that someone else was in the room with them. After twenty hair-raising minutes, the strange presence left the house. Bewildered, Whidden and Carroll roused Alex MacDonald, who was dozing nearby. As it turned out, MacDonald had slept through the whole ordeal and hadn’t heard or felt a thing.

Following that incident, Whidden decided to cut his investigation short and book a hotel room in Antigonish, where he documented his experience in number of pieces for the Halifax Herald. His articles stirred the fires of public curiosity, and soon various authorities on the supernatural, including celebrated Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were invited to assess the situation for themselves.

Dr. Walter Franklin Prince

The only authority to accept the challenge was Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, an esteemed parapsychologist from New York City. In March 1922, Prince, accompanied by Harold Whidden, Leo McGillivray, and a Haligonian (i.e. a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia) named Dan MacRitchie, paid a visit to the MacDonald estate and began to conduct his own investigation into the alleged poltergeist activity. Many of the local Nova Scotians who encountered Prince during his visit perceived him as an arrogant and egotistical Yankee; their low opinion of him is reflected in a number of contemporary newspaper articles.

Prince began his inspection by recording the nature and location of various items in the farmhouse, examining the scorch marks on the walls, and interviewing the MacDonalds and their neighbours. Early on in the investigation, the parapsychologist, on a whim, asked Whidden and MacRitchie to take part in an experiment. He placed a sheet of paper before each of them, provided both of them with a pencil, and asked them to hold the pencils in their hands passively over the paper. Then, Prince invited any spirit in the house to use these pencils to communicate with them if they so desired. In accordance with the expectations (or lack thereof) of all three of the men, nothing happened.

From left to right: Dan MacRitchie, Harold Whidden, Leo McGillivrey, and Walter Prince.

On Friday, March 10, Whidden was called away to Antigonish. Before he left the farmhouse, some strange urging prompted him to ask Prince to perform the pencil experiment with him again. The parapsychologist obliged. This time, something incredible happened. Some mysterious force seemed to take possession of Whidden’s writing hand and began to scribble on the page, producing what is known to parapsychologists as “automatic writing”. As Whidden put it in a later reminiscence:

“Suddenly, I felt a prickly sensation in the end of some of the fingers of my right hand, which increased. The hand then became numb. Before I realized what was happening, the pencil began to move slowly, without any effort or intention on my part.”

For two hours, Whidden scribbled in this manner, going through many sheets of paper which Prince provided. At first, he produced nothing but circles and slanted lines. Then his scribblings began to take on a more intelligent shape, and in no time he was spelling out messages in a handwriting that was not his own. Although the exact content of these message has never been released to the public, Whidden later claimed that the scribblings asserted that the acts of arson and other mischief at the MacDonald farm were committed by spirits. Whidden also claimed that there were other, more profound messages as well, regarding which he wrote:

“Most of the written statements were of the utmost significance and not a few of them were of an entirely personal character. For that reason the greater part of the contents of the strange manuscript will probably never be divulged.

“In one place, for example, it seemed as if my sister, who passed away on August 13th, 1912, was sending me a message.

“One sentence in the writing which followed was:

‘People must realize that those who have passed beyond are ever present. God is merciful. God is good. He is just.’

“And later: ‘Spirits do visit the Earth after death.’

“The whole message was fully of kindly expression and sympathy. There was no sign of malice or enmity in it. It wrote that it would trouble the Macdonalds [sic] no more, and that it would never appear to them.”

Later on, Whidden wrote:

“This may all seem incredible to some people, but every word of it is true. In fact, I have merely given the readers the skim of it: for the very best of reasons, the cream will never be written. I still have every sheet of paper upon which the message was written and will preserve them as the most valuable documents in my possession.”

To the best of this author’s knowledge, the whereabouts of these documents are currently unknown.

poltergeist

Mary Ellen MacDonald

After six days on the farm, Walter Prince wrapped up his investigation and published his findings in the 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Many false reports regarding the nature of his conclusions were published in newspapers all over North America, pulling their information from interviews with him and members of the MacDonald family which Prince claimed never took place. A read through Prince’s original report, however, reveals that the parapsychologist believed that 15-year-old Mary Ellen was responsible for the fires in the MacDonald farmhouse, and that she had set these fires in a dissociated state, under the influence of some supernatural entity which thrived off her energy. He claimed that Mary Ellen was unaware of her actions and thus was not culpable for them.

Prince further theorized that the same entity which directed the actions of Mary Ellen was also responsible for many other strange activities which took place around the farmhouse, including the phenomena which Harold Whidden and Detective Carroll experienced during their own independent investigation. Regarding Whidden’s automatic writing incident (the existence of which, some newspapers erroneously reported, Prince denied entirely), Prince admitted that he was uncertain whether Whidden’s hand was guided by the same aforementioned entity or his own subconscious mind.

Three months after Prince’s investigation, the MacDonald family moved back into their farmhouse. To their relief, they enjoyed a pleasant summer devoid of any strange activity. Then, in October, mysterious fires began to appear on the property once again. This time, regional authorities blamed Mary Ellen for the activity and hauled her off to the Nova Scotia Home for the Insane, an asylum in Dartmouth. Following her release, Mary Ellen married and moved to Ontario, where she lived to a ripe old age.

Not long after Mary Ellen was institutionalized, Alexander and Janet MacDonald abandoned their farm, unwilling to live on it any long and unable to sell it. With no one to maintain it, the farmhouse slowly fell into disrepair.

Today, there is little to distinguish the old MacDonald estate from any other patch of land in the county of Antigonish. Local legend has it that the land is cursed, and that anyone who removes anything from the area, be it a fragment of shingle or a pebble, invites the “Fire Spook” of Caledonia Mills into their own home. Indeed, one woman who defied the curse in the spring of 1971, retrieving an egg cup from the ruins of the MacDonald farmhouse, lost her own farmhouse to a mysterious inferno which consumed the place while she was away in her city home in Antigonish.

The House on Bible Hill

Across the Salmon River from Truro, Nova Scotia, sits a little village called Bible Hill. Inhabited since the mid-18th Century, Bible Hill is certainly old enough to warrant a ghost or two. If the village had any supernatural residents in the past, however, they were inconspicuous houseguests… that is, until December, 1941.

Canadian Poltergeist

That fateful month, something inexplicable happened in the home of Mrs. Lucy Langille and Mrs. Rachel Hull- sisters who lived with Lucy’s 16-year-old son, Arnold; and Rachel’s 12-year-old daughter, June; in a house on Bible Hill’s Farnham Road. As Lucy explained in a later interview:

“We were just sitting there when the closet door opened and a pair of shoes walked out across the floor… with no feet in them.”

Canadian poltergeist

In the weeks following that bizarre incident, strange things began to take place in the Langille home. Stove lids rattled on their own. Cutlery leaped across rooms. Clocks floated through the air. And on one occasion, a visiting neighbour was inhospitably assailed with a flying fireplace poker hurled by some invisible javelineer.

At that time, Lucy and Rachel’s husbands, like many other Nova Scotian men of fighting age, were across the Atlantic, assisting the British Army in the defence of the United Kingdom. With no one else to turn to, the two ladies confided in their neighbours. Good, hard-headed Nova Scotians that they were, the Langille’s friends refused to believe the ladies’ incredible story without proof. Accordingly, Lucy and Rachel invited them into their home so that they could see for themselves the sort of trouble they had to put up with on a daily basis.

One evening in the spring of 1942, a handful of Bible Hill residents, including a few skeptical reporters, accepted the sisters’ invitation and gathered in the Langille home. The lights were turned off, since ghosts, in the words of one contemporary newspaper article, “like termites and burglars, can’t stand light.” Equipped with flashlights, the neighbours placed themselves in strategic positions throughout the house, determined to expose any monkey business.

All of a sudden, a creaking sound broke the silence.

“What’s that?” one neighbour asked.

“It’s the ghost, rocking in the other room,” Lucy replied.

Canadian Poltergeist

Snapping their flashlights on, the neighbours rushed into the room. Sure enough, the rocking chair was oscillating vigorously, as if its occupant had abandoned it in a hurry. The room was empty, however, and there were no routes by which a potential trickster might have escaped unnoticed.

“I know what happened,” said one of the neighbours. “Somebody made it rock by pulling a black thread or horsehairs tied together, from a hole in the wall. Look for a thread.” A subsequent investigation failed to turn up any such item.

Another neighbour suggested that the chair might have been moved by a magnet in the floor, provided it had iron attached to its rockers. A subsequent examination proved that the wooden chair was absent of any metal.

Still, the neighbours were unconvinced. They dared the ghost to rock the chair again, in their presence. Sure enough, the chair began to rock.

At a loss, the neighbours decided to reconvene in the kitchen, where they asked the ghost to join them. All of a sudden, they heard a scraping noise on a shelf. Immediately, flashlights concentrated on the sound, which proved to have come from a milk bottle which slid from one end of the shelf to the other.

Canadian Poltergeist

Before the neighbours had a chance to investigate the incident, a window blind suddenly rolled up on its own. Immediately after that, a table flipped over with a loud crash. Then a kitchen drawer opened and silverware began to levitate. When the neighbours shone their flashlights on the drawer, the spoons, knives, and forks fell to the floor. No sooner had quiet returned to the house than a tin lunchbox leapt from a hook on the wall to clatter on the floor ten feet away.

The neighbours returned to their own homes convinced that something strange indeed had taken up residence in the house on Farnham Road.

Several evenings later, two photographers named George H. Hanebury and Earl Talbot- along with John Murphy, the editor of the Truro Daily News– paid a visit to the house and asked the sisters if they might conduct an investigation of their own. The sisters obliged.

That night, the photographers set up several cameras in the Langille kitchen. During the subsequent investigation, the visitors were bombarded with flying cutlery which stuck into the walls, one of the knives quivering a short distance from a newsman’s head. Unfortunately, the photographers were not quick enough to capture the culprit on camera.

Canadian Poltergeist

Sometime later, a clothes iron on top of the stove began to rattle. The three men whipped their heads around just in time to see 12-year-old June Hull backing away from the stove, as if in terror. This time, the photographers were prepared. Bulbs flashed and shutters clicked. It seemed that the newsmen had caught the poltergeist of Bible Hill in the act.

Sure enough, when they developed the photos in the darkroom later that night, the photographers found themselves staring at the image of a human hand reaching for the iron. Some took this as clear evidence that little June Hull was behind the strange activity, and had deliberately and successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of her family members and neighbours. Others opined that the hand in the photo belonged to an adult, and couldn’t possibly have been June’s. Whatever the case, the iron rattling was the last trick the poltergeist of Bible Hill ever pulled.

The Christmas Ghost of Eastern Passage

In the Western mind, Christmas Eve has a strong association with mystery, magic, and miracles. According to the Gospel of Luke, for example, angels appeared to Syrian shepherds on the very first Christmas Eve to announce the coming of the Messiah. There is an ancient European folk legend which holds that animals gain the ability to speak at the stroke of midnight on this sacred evening so as to celebrate the birth of Christ. And, of course, there is the story of St. Nick and his eight flying reindeer.

Govert Flinck’s painting, “Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds”, 1639

From Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, most stories involving supernatural activity on Christmas Eve are tales of hope and joy. For one Nova Scotian family, however, their own Yuletide ghost story turned out to be the stuff of nightmares.

Canadian Poltergeist

‘Twas the night before Christmas, 1943, and something indeed was stirring in the home of Louis and Ethel Hilchie, who lived with their children in a cottage in Eastern Passage, a peaceful suburb of Halifax. That night, the Hilchie home resounded with three deep, hollow, and completely unexpected knocks which shattered the evening’s tranquility. To the children’s disappointment, a thorough investigation conducted by Mr. Hilchie proved that the mysterious sounds were neither the result of reindeer landing on the roof nor evidence of a certain jolly gentleman’s attempt to invade their home by way of the chimney. Try as he might, Louis Hilchie was unable to ascertain the source of the knocks.

Following that fateful evening, strange things began to take place in the Hilchie house. In addition to loud knocks occurring at random, household objects began to move as if on their own accord. One day, the family washing machine walked its way across the floor. On another occasion, the table at which Ethel Hilchie sat with three of her children overturned seemingly on its own. Once, a pillow hurled itself down the stairs. Another time, Louis and Ethel’s teenage daughter, Catherine, while heating a frying pan over the stove, watched an egg jump into the skillet as though propelled by unseen hands.

Canadian Poltergeist

By New Years’ Eve, Mrs. Hilchie was at her wit’s end. In early 1944, she called both the Halifax Regional Police and the Mail-Star, a local newspaper (a precursor to Halifax’s Chronicle Herald), and implored them to assist in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Although the police were no more successful in their attempt to identify the elusive culprit than Louis had been, the Mail-Star reporters witnessed some eerie manifestations of their own. One journalist gazed, mouth agape, as a pair of scissors lying on a shelf trembled, shook, opened, and closed on their own. Another reporter, while interviewing Ethel, watched a kettle of boiling water intended for the teapot pick itself off the stove and crash to the floor. These same newspapermen, during their visit, saw a steaming bowl of soup levitate and tip into Catherine’s lap; watched a box of soap flakes fly down a flight of stairs; and witnessed an alarm clock take flight from a dresser.

The violence of these manifestations seemed to increase with time. The poltergeist graduated from tossing pillows to hurling hammers down the stairs. One evening, Ethel Hilchie descended these same stairs when something grasped the heel of her slipper and wrenched it off. Several days later, the same thing happened. This time, however, Ethel fell down the stairs, fracturing one of her ankle bones in the process.

Interestingly, animals seemed to sense the strange power that lurked within the Hilchie home. For several weeks, a stray dog took to sitting at the Hilchie’s front step and howling at the door.

In the spring of 1944, a researcher named Dr. Thomas L. Garrett, president and founder of the Garrett Foundation for Psychological Research, paid a visit to the Hilchie home at the behest of the American Weekly Magazine, a supplement to the San Francisco Examiner. Garrett was the veteran of many a paranormal investigation, and had revealed many hoaxes in the past.

During his visit, Garrett interviewed Louis, Ethel, and the children at length, pausing once when a teapot flew off a hook in the kitchen to whiz by the head of the Hilchies’ eldest girl, 21-year-old Gladys. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the strange activity was not fraudulent, and seemed to revolve around teenaged Catherine (incidentally, a day prior to his arrival, Catherine claimed to have seen the face of a strange-looking man with bushy hair peering at her through a window). As Garrett put it in an article for the aforementioned magazine:

“Investigation revealed that all the mysterious manifestations appeared to have taken place in the presence, and the unknown-to-herself cooperation, of Catherine.”

Regarding his comment on Catherine’s unwitting complicity in the manifestations, Garrett flirted with the notion that Catherine, along with other adolescents around whom poltergeist activity revolves, projected invisible, “‘psychic’, semi-flexible rods” from her body which, “being struck sharply on floor, table, chair, or other body, cause the raps or knocks.” Later on in his article, Garrett admitted that “the theory of the psychic rods, accepted as it is by many psychic investigators, requires further substantiation.”

 

Sources

The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills

  • Ghost Stories of Canada (2000), by John Robert Colombo and Jillian Hulme Gilliland
  • Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills, in the December 9, 2013 issue of PhantomsAndMonsters.com
  • The ‘Poltergeist Case’ Investigated by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, in the June 3, 1922 issue of Light: A Journal of Spiritual Progress & Psychical Research
  • My Experiences as the MacDonald Homestead (1922), by H. B. Whidden
  • An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish, by Walter F. Prince, in the 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research

The House on Bible Hill

  • The Haunting of the Langille House, in the March 18, 1942 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune
  • News Cameramen Catch ‘Ghost’ Flatiron-Handed, in the March 20, 1942 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune
  • An article in the Mary 31, 1942 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Parade: The Grin and Bare It Section of the May 1, 1942 issue of Maclean’s magazine

The Christmas Ghost of Eastern Passage

  • An article in the March 5, 1944 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, by Dr. Thomas L. Garrett, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra

 

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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